Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Faking It: Evaluating Internet Resources

It's that time of year when seniors around the country migrate through an important rite of passage: the research paper.

It's that time of year when teachers around the country lead the senior migration through the research paper.

Part of that journey involves teaching seniors the important skill of analyzing and evaluating source materials.

To that end, here are a few of my favorite resources for teaching students that as consumers and users of information they need to heed the warning: caveat emptor!

We begin with a video, ostensibly from the BBC, about the elusive flying penguin.

Of course, penguins can't fly, but I have actually had students who believe this video is legitimate. Thus, we begin our discussion about choosing credible sources with a conversation about how the faux looks real.

Next, we move to some web sites. I love the Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus  website. If you click on the "media" tab, you can even observe the Tree Octopus in its natural habitat via a YouTube video!

I'm probably the most amused from these fake internet sources, and sometimes I think the kids get more enjoyment from my giggling than from the sites and videos. Still, these resources and others like them teach important lessons about using credible evidence in the research paper, whatever form it takes.

A simple Google search yields a plethora of fake/hoax website possibilities, so have fun. When I'm able to have students examine these sites in the lab, I put links up on Moodle or on My Big Campus so that I can mix the fake w/ the real.

To assist students in their evaluation of sites, I provide them an internet site evaluation form. Kathy Schrock offers numerous forms for a variety of grade levels and website types here.  For evaluating internet sites, I share this evaluation form with students.

Next, we talk about Wikipedia. After Google, Wikipedia may be students' second favorite search option for finding information. To illustrate the problem with Wikipedia, I share a story close to home with them. Last fall Melissa McGrath, spokesperson for Idaho State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, made a concerted effort to repeatedly edit Mr. Luna's Wikipedia page. Specifically, prior to the November election, she kept deleting Mr. Luna's education and published propaganda about the Luna Laws voters repealed in November. Luna graduated from an on-line college. Ultimately, the folks at Wikipedia contacted Ms. McGrath and directed her to cease editing the page, which they restored time and again. Major news outlets, including the Daily Koss and the Idaho Statesman published articles about McGrath's Wiki War.

Finally, I shared with students my own "you got me" story that happened recently. A friend emailed me a link to Diane Senechal's blog post "Teacher Reprimanded for Assigning Book."  The image below shows the blog header and the beginning of the story:

I was completely fooled into thinking the story really happened. I had recently finished reading Senechel's fabulous book Republic of Noise, and as I saw nothing in the headline or on the header to suggest the story is fake and given all that has transpired in education in recent years, I believed Senechal's post--and I commented. I commented in such a way, that I laid bare my deception.

Only when Senechal informed me that the story is "satire" did I realize my mistake. Oops! My "gotcha" moment provided my students with an important lesson: Even the most savvy among us can make mistakes in our information saturated world.

The story also offers a nifty segue into the next lesson: We can't always trust the expert. There's a wonderful TED talk we'll view and discuss in our ongoing efforts to evaluate resources, including the experts.

Finally, knowing how to read a URL offers students important clues about what websites to trust. Moving from left to right are the most to least reliable types of internet sites:

.gov   .edu   .net   .com   .org

There are numerous ways students will attempt to "play school" on their educational journey. Those who guide them through their rites of passage owe students an academically valuable experience. Now's not the time to embrace or allow faking it.


  1. I've used the Tree Octopus site, amongst others, with my students, but I've never viewed the penguin video. In the coming weeks, I'll definitely be doing so as we head into a unit requiring some internet research. I hope it's ok if I 'borrow' your rubric for evaluating websites. Thanks for the great lesson!

    1. Oh, it's not my rubric! Why reinvent the wheel.

  2. Arthur Conan Doyle -- creator of the ultimate critical thinker, Sherlock Holmes -- was fooled into believing in the existence of fairies by a couple of young schoolgirls. The children perpetrated the hoax in 1917, using rudimentary trick photography. Nearly a century later, students find themselves confronted with a worldwide computer network filled with every claim imaginable, contradictory information, and videos that seem impossibly real. As the Internet continues to assume the role of primary authority, how will future generations sort out truth from fiction? Or will society simply adapt to the fuzziness? Your evaluation form provides good criteria, but we have to assume those wishing to deceive will improve their tactics, as well.

    This post addresses important issues. Thank you for publishing it.

    1. Thank you for the comment and for the ACD anecdote! I think the response to students learning how to navigate the net will be more platforms like in which someone else predetermines what students have access to on the internet. I understand why such sites exist, but I fear they will further erode students' critical thinking skills.

  3. The info site for the pomegranate phone is also pretty good value:

  4. I love the Penguin video and have shared it with an online network of school librarians that I belong to. I would also like to use your evaluation sheet, if you don't mind.